Bahai Gardens in Akko
Blog post - Lena Novins-Montague
Every Jew, no matter where they live, has a personal relationship with Israel. For me, this relationship has always been laced with sky high expectations. I've spent every summer since the fifth grade at Jewish sleep away camp where I've been emphatically reminded by countless Israeli staff members that Israel is the most beautiful country in the world, that there is nothing like it, and that when I finally go, I will fall in love with the country of my people.
I have grown up in a home where pictures of Israel hang from the walls and where dinner conversations often revolve around the complexities of the Jewish state. In school, I have read news articles about violence and tragedy and triumph in this country that I am somehow connected to, despite the fact that I walked on Israeli earth for the first time about two weeks ago.
Israel, for better or for worse, is a part of the folklore for any Jewish kid growing up. We grow up with the expectation that someday we will return to this country and be dazzled by its beauty and its sense of familiarity.
This is why I was nervous that Israel could not possibly reach the extremely high expectations I've unintentionally created for it over the past seventeen years of anticipation.
Our first day in Israel was preceded by a sleepless night of flying. As I loaded my suitcase onto the bus, traded my American dollars for colorful shekels, and grabbed an Israel phone, my sleep deprived mind wanted to feel something. I wanted a sense of belonging or a swelling in my chest or some confirmation that I was actually "home".
As the day progressed, I continued to wait for a feeling. I had fun at the beach and scuttling through the water caves, but it-- whatever it is- hadn't set in yet.
As the day progressed and the heat intensified, I found myself nervously waiting in line for the Kotel. Here I was, with back sweat from my Camelback and a long skirt haphazardly yanked over my athletic shorts, half awake, about to enter the most holy place on earth for the first time.
Before entering, Elaun told us that every Jew, no matter how secular or observant, is entitled to their place at the wall. He said that we shouldn't be intimidated by the crowds or lack of empty spaces and that this wall belongs to us as much as it belongs to any other Jew. As the guys and girls separated, I wondered if I was breathing or walking or thinking right, however one is supposed to breathe or walk or think at the holiest place on earth. I saw plastic white chairs filled with women praying, some crying, some just staring at the wall. Like Elaun had alluded to, I saw a crowd of women standing at the wall, with very little empty space, and for a moment, I didn't feel entitled to my space.
I hung back and watched my friends wedge themselves into spaces and press their foreheads against the wall. They looked like they belonged. After a few minutes of staring at a bird that was sitting comfortably on the wall, I saw an opening between two women and I walked into it. For a moment I stared up at the wall and then I pressed my forehead to it, because that's what everyone else was doing. And then I waited. Maybe for an epiphany or for God to peek out from a crack in the wall and talk to me but mostly, just for a feeling. Every now and then, I lifted my head to look up at the sheer vastness of the wall or the notes precariously wedged in or at the plants that were growing out from the wall. There was something comforting about the coolness of the wall in contrast to the scorching Israeli summer day.
After a few minutes of standing there, I sat down in a white seat and read letters my parents and grandparents had written me, and that was when I felt something. I thought about both of my grandmothers, my mother, my sister, all the amazing women that came before me and the women with me on that hot day and all of the women who will come after us, all the other teenage girls who will come here sleep deprived with their Nike shorts making weird indentations in their long skirts. There was no blinding white light and God did not peek out from a crack and talk to me but I felt that sense of belonging, that great expectation that has been drilled into my head since day one.
Blog Post - Hannah Goldstein
This is the first time in my life that I haven't been in the United States for the Fourth of July. However, on this day more than ever, I am proud to be an American. As I tour this beautiful country of Israel and I observe the life that these people live, I express nothing but gratitude towards the opportunities that I have both at home, and in this country. It is astonishing to learn about and live the lives that these people live. In the three short weeks that I have been here, there have been several missile and terrorist attacks only miles away. The Israeli people live with ISIS as their neighbors and that is something that leaves me speechless. I stood at the top of the Golan Heights and learned about the civil war in Syria. I watched the Lebanese border while a man told us that he had fought in four and half wars in his lifetime. It is even more amazing to see the true strength and dedication that these Jewish people have. I have learned to never be ashamed of where I come from. I express nothing but gratitude for my life in America. I have the freedom to live without the fear of a missile at my doorstep or a terrorist attack. I live with the freedom to have an education, a beautiful family, and equal opportunity. In this country, it is mandatory to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces.
Next week, I will be going through an Israeli Army simulation. It humbles me to know that I have willingly chosen to continue my efforts to serve in the United States Military because this experience has shown me that there truly is something to fight for. As the Israelis fight for their home and their families, it gives me perspective on how blessed I am to live in the United States of America and celebrate this magnificent day. I am spending this Fourth of July in the Middle East and I am proud to celebrate my freedom.
Gadna (Israeli Army)
Blog Post - Danny Sarche
We've got less than 2 weeks left on this trip. Three weeks gone faster than I ever expected. Israel is a country that surprises, astonishes, and inspires. From sunrises over sand & salt to extreme heat over lush olive groves, from desolate arid rock to pleasantly humid rivers, Israel amazes. It has taken my breath away.
Today we embark on our electives week -- 4 days of wandering, working or whining (good luck to those doing Gadna! Don't whine too much). I, for one, will be wandering. 65 kilometers of wandering give or take. From the Mediterranean to the Kinneret, I and 40 others will be trekking for 4 days. The idea is daunting. For most, if not all, it will be the longest hike yet undertaken. But for all, without a doubt, it will be as amazing as it is arduous. We will learn new things about ourselves, make new friendships -- because nothing brings people closer than sweat, soreness and a healthy dose of chutzpah - and above all, we'll see Israel from an entirely new light. I am beyond excited to begin this journey. Hi ho and away we go!!